While not to my visual taste, Impressionism seemed to signal a shift away from the representational view. No matter how fantastical the subject matter, painting had up until that point not ventured too far from the natural properties of light. Most adhered to this standard. The Realists and Romantics of the time maintained a proper sense of natural color and perspective.
Fanatics of Tangier by Eugene Delacroix (1838)
Fanatics of Tangier by Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix is a good example of the standard use of color and perspective. The exotic scene is far-fetched but not in terms of color, value, or perspective. Whether or not this place exists, it still is familiar to the senses as a possibility. The Impressionist broke this convention and forced the question: What is art? Questions of this sort are difficult to answer but still interesting. The difficulty of the art question that Impressionism asks is important and may be the one reason I applaud the effort. Visually, I don’t care for the style but overall champion abstraction. The Impressionists were likely the first to venture into the abstract on purpose. The notion of capturing or conveying an experience is ambitious and asks another interesting question: Does what we experience vary from person to person?
Fishing Boats Leaving the Harbor, Le Havre by Claude Monet: (1874)
In Fishing boats Leaving the Harbor by Monet, we see what is altogether very blurry and maybe a little boring. Everyone is familiar with rain and the nature of water to skew vision. It makes sense for the scene to be blurry. It is enough to get a rough outline of a sailboat to know we see a sailboat. While I can’t say I enjoy the overall drab color and dreary landscape, the image here might bring some consideration about the method of painting rather than scene itself. Until now, it may not have occurred to the viewer how to capture some frozen image of a rainy scene, which itself changes quite quickly. Here the impressionistic techniques to work on a wet surface and let colors mix on the canvas mimics the way in which color shifts in the rain. It may be however that this scene isn’t trying to illustrate rain at all but the wet feeling of being shoreside. In either case, Monet has brought the experiential aspect of water to the viewer and only at the cost of a more natural representation. To be more representational would have been to rob the viewer of the decision about what can be seen on any rainy day.
Portrait of Claude Monet by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1875)
Self-Portrait by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1910)
In the above paired portraits by Renoir, there is an even further shift from the representational. This greater abstraction may have only been possible with the Impressionist’s change in convention. The first portrait from 1875 has a soft treatment to color and visible brushstrokes. The subject’s movement continues as poised to act but also reflective. The characteristic blur leaves this image in motion for the viewer to consider and determine some visual experience. In the later Self-Portrait, Renoir has left other conventions behind. The bold red background is unnatural at best and similarly bold strokes of various color build up to form the jacket, tie, and hat of a much older Renoir. In some ways, the subject seems flat but still in the foreground by contrast. In this abstract image, the Impressionist diciple has already outgrown the question of simple subjective observation. As much can also be said for subsequent art movements. What makes the Impressionistic style entertaining is the questions that are asked. What is art? What is the relationship between the artist and the viewer? What is it for something to be representational? I applaud the Impressionists for breaking convention and putting forth at least some attempt at answers.